It’s easy to feel divorced from history.
As a kid, I saw all my history lessons at a remove: upheavals, struggle, significance occupied a different plane of existence, and they had no place in my humdrum life, as I had no place in theirs. An ignorant belief to have harbored, for sure, and one that can render whole sectors of society inert (cough middle class apathy cough). It’s also a view that finds an eloquent refutation in Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Vol. 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa, a gorgeous book that combines a virtuosic command of the comics medium with a tremendous and remarkably empathetic vision of history.
In geology, as in comics, space is time: the movements of tectonic plates mark centuries, just as the procession of panels parcels out moments. Dead Balagtas seizes this similarity and runs with it, marshaling comics’ unique register to chart the evolution of the Philippines.
The book starts with a babaylan suspended in the total blankness of indeterminate time; Tungkung Langit and Laon Sina, emerging before the beginning of history, move through a full-bleed spread and large swaths of darkness, unbound by the panels, borders, and gutters that divide a page into discrete instances. Once they begin weaving the cosmos into existence, then the lines appear. And yet the ritual patterns of the babaylan’s narration differ from the sweeping curves of primordial time; from the expansive spaces that accommodate geology’s immense, ambling processes; from the smaller, rigid boxes that come with people and the deliberate measurements we use for our lives.
Dead Balagtas goes beyond simply fitting its stories into the structure of comics, though. Juxtaposition is the heart of comics’ syntax, but part of Dead Balagtas’ formal brilliance stems from how much it leans on juxtaposition as a semantic engine.
Each page brings history in direct contact with present-day stories. In “Ang Daigdig,” eroding friendships track the natural drift of continents and find melancholic weight in their shared inevitability. Plate subductions and deepening trenches echo personal ruptures in “Ang Karagatan” and “Lupang Hinirang,” even as these processes seed the hope of new ground arising from the tumult.
Juxtaposition eliminates the temporal—and subsequently, conceptual—divide between these narrative threads. Dead Balagtas then takes those threads and weaves them into a far-reaching dialogue about how one comes to build and occupy a place in the world, on scales massive or otherwise.
This isn’t to say that the vignettes interwoven with the country’s geologic timeline are themselves inconsequential. They’re small only in the sense that they are personal. But Dead Balagtas has chosen to tell the kinds of personal stories that are momentous in the mere act of their being told.
How often do we read stories that probe the intersections of gender, sexuality, class, religion, and so on, with unflinching, compassionate nuance? Dead Balagtas gives us queer romances between a Muslim stockbroker and a Christian contractual worker, an upper-middle-class student activist chafing under her mother’s expectations and a young laborer struggling to support her family. But the big-ticket issues never swallow up the characters or even get discussed as capital-I Issues, with all the heavy-handedness and tokenism that implies. Instead, Dead Balagtas ventures into the personal landscapes that most popular media rarely explore, taking these characters’ stories and their place in the country’s unfolding story as a matter of course.
What’s brilliant is that the book does something similar to its readers. Comics, after all, work as much through the spaces between panels as through the images and text within them. As we readers fill in the gaps, we string these drawn moments into a cohesive narrative. We are, in other words, participants in these histories ourselves. In choosing a medium built on such necessary engagement, Dead Balagtas takes our participation, our own place in the writing and sense-making of various histories, as a given. For how, the book seems to ask, could it be otherwise?
At the book’s launch, the creator, Emiliana Kampilan, spoke about each of us forming the essence of the land we live in.
“Tayo ay lupa (We are the land),” she says. “Tayo ay dagat (We are the sea).”
In retrospect, the opening tale of Laon Sina and Tungkung Langit reads like a waymark: the very cosmos springing forth from personal connection, from souls in love and in conflict. Consider Dead Balagtas the manifesto for Kampilan’s vision of a living, vibrant history: a history that encompasses us; a history that we embody.